How Super Eagles defied odds, doubts to qualify for N10b CAF prize

Smarting from the second-round shocking exit at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon two years ago, failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, and a poor run of results in 2023, not many could place a bet on an excellent outing for the Nigerian national team in Cote d’Ivoire. But in a tournament full of upsets, the Super Eagles are in the final and in the hearts of soccer-loving Nigerians again – forcing rare smiles that temporarily forgo national socio-economic woes. GOWON AKPODONOR reports that the Eagles’ good fortune is a testament to national potential, continuous investment in sports and daring to believe in dreams.

It’s been a while since the Super Eagles impressed and united Nigerians like they did on Wednesday.

Perhaps at the 2013 AFCON, 1996 Olympics and parts of USA ‘94, at no other time had Nigerians unanimously relished so much ‘pain’ and pleasure from the field of play.

Indeed, among all the Super Eagles teams that have excelled at the biennial Africa Cup of Nations, none has been sent off with so much doubts as the Jose Peseiro-led team.

It is not by accident. Before the competition kicked off on January 13, 2024, Peseiro’s team had a scorecard of 20 matches, winning nine and losing seven with four draws. Among the losses was a home defeat by minnows, Guinea Bissau, in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Abuja.

With obvious challenges in the goalkeeping department, the Super Eagles were not given much chance of doing anything substantial at the AFCON, especially in a tournament that has top-rated sides as 2022 World Cup semifinalists, Morocco, and defending champions Senegal, among the contenders for the trophy.

But the Super Eagles had hope in abundance and an unshakeable belief in their ability to excel at the Championship 11 years after their last triumph in South Africa.

With the slogan, ‘Let’s do it again,’ the Super Eagles took to the championship with such an assurance that even their biggest doubters, as the competition progressed, started believing that this team, perhaps, had certain hidden weapons in their armoury that outsiders didn’t know.

That optimism and belief in their ability manifested in their steady march to Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations’ final against hosts, Cote d’Ivoire, which victory will fetch the team the princely sum of $7 million (which is approximately N10.15 billion.)

But getting to the final came at a price that also has a rollercoaster of a tournament and individual brilliance of players who dare to believe in the power of their dreams.

Good motivation from CAF, FG
On the eve of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced that the winner of the championship will get $7 million (approximately N10.15 billion), while the runner-up will take home $4 million (approximately N5.8 billion), with the semifinalists taking $2.5 million (N3.6b) each, while for qualifying for the quarterfinals, a team will earn $1.3 million (N1.8b).

The amount announced by CAF signify a 40 per cent increase from the previous prize money for the championship, with the confederation’s president, Dr Patrice Motsepe, saying that “a portion of the prize money will contribute to developing football and also benefit all the football stakeholders, as well as assist our Member Associations with their administrations.”

Before the Super Eagles embarked on the journey to Cote d’Ivoire, the Federal Government also approved the Nigeria Football Federation’s (NFF) budget of N12 billion, which it said was for the campaign in Cote d’Ivoire and payment of the coaches’ 15 months outstanding and other allowances, as well as clearance of the debts owed players and officials of the other national teams.

Supporters club

Super Eagles supporters Club members cheering the team in a Group A game against Equatorial Guinea

Both motivations combined to ginger the boys, such that their ratings, in just two weeks, went from zero to hero in the minds of Nigerians at home and abroad.

A competition of grit, guts
When the Group pairings for the 34th AFCON in Cote d’Ivoire were made, many fans tipped the host nation, Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire and the Super Eagles of Nigeria as favourites in Group A.

But the Nzalang Nacional of Equatorial Guinea, ranked 88th in world football, had other ideas as they held Nigeria to a 1-1 draw before shooting down the almighty Elephants 4-0 in their last group match. The Elephants had to wait for 72 hours before sneaking into the round of 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams among the groups.

Group B was not different, as the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde topped the table ahead of eight-time champions, the Pharaohs of Egypt. Former champions, Black Stars of Ghana could not survive the superior play of the ‘underdogs. While Cape Verde finished with two wins and a draw, the Pharaohs ended without victory and no defeat, recording all draws. Ghana and Mozambique were sent packing.

Group C, which had the defending champions, Teranga Lions of Senegal, Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, Syli Nationale of Guinea and The Gambia, also produced unexpected results. Though Senegal finished strongly in the group with three wins out of three, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon and Guinea both finished on four points.

Cameroon, which lost against the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the round of 16, came second in Group C with Guinea finishing as one of the best losers. The Gambia finished bottom of the group without a point.

Group D, with Angola, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria, produced one of the biggest upsets in the tournament, with the highest-ranked team in the group, Algeria, finishing last without winning a match.

The lowest-ranked team (117 in the world) in the group, Angola, topped the group.

The Palancas Negras of Angola finished unbeaten in the group with seven points, Burkina Faso was second with four points, while Mauritania finished as one of the best losers in the group with three points.

The ‘almighty’ Algeria, without a win – two draws and a loss were booted out at the group stage.

Another shocker came from Group E, which had Mali, South Africa, Namibia and Tunisia.

The Eagles of Mali topped the group, finishing with five points, while the Bafana Bafana of South Africa was second with four points. The Brave Warriors of Namibia clinched one of the best losers’ spots with four points, while North African giant Tunisia, who stopped the Super Eagles in the round of 16 two years ago in Cameroon, waved goodbye in the group stage.

Group F had Morocco, Tanzania, DR Congo and Zambia. The Moroccans, who made it to the semifinal at the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar, lived up to expectations, topping the group with seven points. DR Congo occupied second spot with three points while Zambia and Tanzania with two points each could not scale through.

The competition in Cote d’Ivoire has mirrored what some analysts describe as the changing face of African football because, after the group matches, all the eight quarterfinalists at the last AFCON hosted in Cameroon were eliminated.

Former Super Eagles coach, Gernot Rohr, described the elimination of Algeria, Tunisia, and Ghana at the group stage as an end of a cycle for big teams. To him, their failure was the tournament’s biggest shock. The trio of Algeria, Tunisia and Ghana have won seven AFCON titles and regularly participate in the FIFA World Cup.

“Some of the great countries dropped a little bit in quality. You can see that with Algeria, with Ghana, for example. I think it is the end of a generation, and they have to renew their squad,” he said.

Rohr, who led the Super Eagles to a bronze medal finish at the Egypt 2019 edition of the AFCON, stated that each country has its problems, adding that it is not easy to generalise. “But the small countries are going forward, and some of the traditional big countries are going down or stopping in their evolution, so this is a little problem. But you have it all the time.”

The Proprietor of Cable Football Academy, Coach Edwin Onovwotafe said that the upsets created by the ‘underdogs’ in this year’s AFCON were a combination of many factors.

“Having natural talent is not enough,” he said. “These are countries that have invested in their football growth. They have taken their FIFA Football funds and used it well to prepare their national teams. Mauritania had not won a competitive football match in almost two decades, but things have turned around in the last 10 years due to the sincerity on the part of their football administrators, who did not toe the line of some corrupt African football administrators.”

Africa Cup of Nations AfconAfrica Cup of Nations AfconIn 2021, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he was ‘impressed’ and ‘proud’ of the work done by the Mauritania Football Association in building a new stadium and technical centre with the funds it received from the FIFA Forward programme. The investments are now paying off at the continental level.

Today, Mauritania’s football development history has found itself in the spotlight. Mauritania won their first-ever AFCON game, a 1-0 victory against two-time champion, Algeria. It was enough to see them through to the knockout round and eliminate Algeria, who won their last title just four years ago.

While not many people saw the Super Eagles doing anything substantial at the ongoing AFCON, the team’s former captain, Segun Odegbami, has been consistent in his belief that the 2024 class will bring the trophy back from Cote d’Ivoire.

Even before the competition kicked off last month, Peseiro took every opportunity he got to reiterate his belief that Nigeria will emerge champions of the continent for the fourth time at the final tournament in Cote d’Ivoire and called on all patriotic Nigerians to do their bit in their place and sector to back the team’s campaign.

Speaking from Cote d’Ivoire, where he is one of the Super Eagles’ ambassadors at the championship, Odegbami said: “I have unflagging confidence that this team will do it again. I have been saying it for some weeks now and the belief is getting stronger by the day. That is why I drove from Nigeria with my team, across the stretch of one thousand and one hundred kilometres of single carriage way, all to cheer the team to victory.

“Some people have said that anytime we play or defeat Cote d’Ivoire at the AFCON, we go all the way to the Final, and even win it. That may be superstitious but there are facts in there. Our team was not in a good place before the tournament and the opening game against Equatorial Guinea was not reassuring, but the victory over the host nation and one of the strong favourites has turned things around and we’re looking good.”

Peseiro, a new darling of Nigerians
In the build-up to the Nations Cup, Coach Jose Peseiro was one of the most vilified football tacticians on earth. While some Nigerians called Peseiro a ‘scam’, others simply tagged him a failed and clueless coach.

It got to a stage that some Nigerians told his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), to do away with the Portuguese when his contract expires after the ongoing AFCON. Even the NFF came out to assure football fans that no matter what happened in Cote d’Ivoire, they would not renew Peseiro’s contract.

But the coach kept his cool and even accepted a pay cut just to prove his ‘many enemies’ wrong. Peseiro landed in Cote d’Ivoire with the Super Eagles ranked outside the favourites for the AFCON title.

Now, the Portuguese has succeeded within 30 days to reverse the negative opinions of Nigerians about his ability. His tactical innovation of a fluid five-man defensive formation is bringing the desired victories, though with narrow margins.

Peseiro has said repeatedly that the Super Eagles ‘is still a work in progress.’ But, at least, many Nigeria football fans can confidently say that he is building his core structure around Stanley Nwabali, Williams Troost-Ekong, Semi Ajayi, Ola Aina, Calvin Bassey, Saidu Zaidu, Frank Onyeka, Alex Iwobi, Ademola Lookman, Moses Simon and Victor Osimhen.

It took Nigeria’s most successful coach, Clemence Westerhof, five years to perfect his formidable arsenal of Peter Rufai, Austin Eguavoen, Uche Okechukwu, Uche Okafor, Ben Iroha, Sunday Oliseh, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Amunike, Daniel Amokachi, Rashidi Yekini, and George Finidi.

One of the biggest revelations in the Super Eagles’ march to the Africa Cup of Nations final is goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali, who before the competition started, had only had four caps for the country. His confidence between the posts is phenomenal and his saves are astonishing. Apart from the fourth-minute breathtaking goal-line block that would have given Angola the lead against Nigeria in the quarterfinal, Nwabali was the saviour on Wednesday, keeping out two penalties against the Bafana Bafana to send Nigeria to the final.

Many have compared his huge and commanding presence to such greats as Vincent Enyeama, Emmanuel Okala and Peter Rufai of Nigeria. He arrived on the scene just when it seemed that goalkeepers would be the country’s bane at the championship.

South African lesson for domestic league
One of the unexpected outcomes of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations is the case for Africa-based players made eloquently by the Bafana Bafana, who came to the championship with 80 per cent home-based players.

The fact that the South African team has players from only four teams in the country’s league shows that investment in the local league helps to build quality players, who will find it easy to blend and play as a unit given the enabling environment.

While most teams at the championship relied heavily on players based in Europe, South Africa stands out in having an almost entirely home-based squad with coach Hugo Broos leaning heavily on the Mamelodi Sundowns side that dominates domestically. Ten members of the Bafana Bafana squad play for Sundowns.

Egypt is the only nation that came close to South Africa, but they still had a significant sprinkling of foreign-based stars beyond talisman Mohamed Salah.

It is something that gives South Africa coach Broos an obvious advantage over many of his counterparts, who saw most of their players leave their clubs in the middle of the European season and had just a few days to train together before the AFCON began.

“When you watch these guys play you can tell they have been playing together for a while,” former Cameroon defender, Aurelien Chedjou, who played under Broos for the Indomitable Lions, told broadcaster Canal Plus Afrique.

“They can find each other almost with their eyes closed and that makes a difference.”

Broos really has no choice but to rely on a core of Sundowns players, given how few leading South Africans play abroad.

Percy Tau of Egyptian giants, Al Ahly, has the highest profile, and the little forward is a former Sundowns player, featuring in the team that won the CAF Champions League in 2016.

Beyond him, there is Lyle Foster of English Premier League side Burnley, but the striker was left out of the squad due to mental health issues.

Sundowns, who were bought two decades ago by current Confederation of African Football president Patrice Motsepe, have won six consecutive South African titles.

Comparing the South African phenomenon with Nigeria of the 1970s and early 1980s, former Green Eagles star, Kelvin Onwana, said the Bafana Bafana are enjoying the benefits derivable from playing together whether in-season or outside the normal football season.

Stanley NwabaliStanley Nwabali

Stanley Nwabali makes a save during the penalty shootout against South Africa. Photo: AFP

According to Onwana, “There was a time in Nigeria when the bulk of national team players came from Enugu Rangers, iICC, Spartans, Raccah Rovers, Calabar Rovers, Sharks and Mighty Jets.

“Then, the coaches could camp the team for weeks before a major game. Even when Westerhof came in 1989, he turned back on Europe-based players, took the local lads to Bauchi for two months, which gave the country such stars as Uche Okechukwu, Ben Iroha, Ajibade Babalade, Daniel Amokachi and Friday Elaho, among others. That team went to Algiers 1990 and won the silver medal.

“But that was possible because we had a thriving league, with Nigerian teams always getting to the final stages of CAF inter-club competitions.”

Onwana said the country could still get back to that stage of producing quality players for the national team from the local league if all the stakeholders eschewed selfishness and helped to build the Nigerian Premier Football League (NPFL).

He said the current managers of the NPFL are doing well, adding, however, that they must find a way of convincing corporate Nigeria to help them build the brand.

Sunday’s final pits two teams that have developed a rivalry in the West Africa region, but in their previous meetings at this championship, the Super Eagles have always had the upper hand. One except was the 2006 semifinal clash in Egypt, where a Didier Drogba-led team had the better of the Super Eagles to qualify for the final game against the hosts. Nigeria avenged that defeat in Alexandria at the South Africa 2013 edition of the AFCON, winning their quarterfinal tie in the city of Rustenburg.

Incidentally, these two teams came from Group A, where the Elephants lost two matches, (1-0) against the Super Eagles and 4-0 against Equatorial Guinea. The rivalry in this region requires no introduction. The nations in this region (including Cameroon) have won 15 AFCON titles and have reached 19 AFCON finals.

Players from different countries in this region have won various categories of CAF Awards from 1992-2023 (some exceptions being 1998 when Morocco’s Mustapha Hadji pipped Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha to win it, ……). Furthermore, the only African to be crowned FIFA Player of the Year hails from Liberia–George Weah.

Before Morocco made it to the semifinal of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup, Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana had reached the quarterfinal stage at different times. Nigeria and Cameroon are the continent’s only Olympic Gold medalists, while Nigeria and Ghana share seven world titles at FIFA U17 and U20 levels.

This is Cote d’Ivoire’s second hosting of the competition; the first was in 1984 when the Elephants couldn’t make it beyond the group stage. But here, although the Elephants came from ‘near exit’ at the group stage, they are now in the final, dreaming of winning their third continental title.

A titanic clash awaits African football as Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire contest the AFCON 2023 final on Sunday. This heavyweight bout sees two bitter rivals collide with continental glory at stake.

February 11 will witness a final for the ages at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium. When these foes last met in the group stage, Nigeria edged out the hosts 1-0.

However, with redemption on the line, Cote d’Ivoire will be a different beast. And Nigeria knows preventing the Elephants from winning a third AFCON on home soil represents their toughest test.

For Nigerian manager Jose Peseiro, outwitting Cote d’Ivoire’s boss, Emerse Fae, will be key. Peseiro’s tactical nous guided Nigeria past South Africa in a penalty shootout thriller on Wednesday’s first semi-final

Fae also showed grit to overcome DR Congo 1-0 in the semifinals. Much will depend on the battle between Peseiro and Fae on the touchline.

On the pitch, the stars will shine bright under the Abidjan lights. Cote d’Ivoire boasts star players like Nicolas Pepe and prolific Dortmund striker Sebastien Haller.

Yet Nigeria has talents like Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and William Troost-Ekong in their ranks. With such pedigree on display, a goal-fest could await.

Whoever prevails, African football is the ultimate winner. This AFCON reaches a fitting crescendo with two heavyweights fighting for continental glory.

Man-of-the-match in the semifinal defeat of South Africa, goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali, describes Sunday’s final game as the defining moment in the careers of the players and their manager, Jose Peseiro.

The Chippa United of South Africa star made a brilliant save to deny South Africa from taking the lead in the first half of the semifinal and would go on to be the hero in the penalty shootout, saving Teboho Mokoena and Evidence Makgopa’s spot kicks.

Therefore, it was unsurprising that the 27-year-old was handed the man-of-the-match award for his heroics in the game.

Asked about his feelings after being named the MVP of the game at the post-match conference, Nwabali said: “Today, I don’t really know how I am feeling but it has been God throughout this tournament.

“I really appreciate the management and the coaches today; they have really guided me a lot throughout this tournament. I feel so happy and I really appreciate my teammate.

“The players are determined to win this competition because except for two of us, none of the other players have won any senior title with the national team.”

Looking at the Super Eagles’ march to the final game against Cote d’Ivoire, football historian, Kunle Solaja, said that Peseiro has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.

According to Solaja, “Peseiro’s antecedents did not suggest this would happen as Nigeria will now face Cote d’Ivoire in the final match on Sunday.

“Before now, the Super Eagles under him had been on a steady loss in relevance as the once most fancied team in Africa could not hold or assert itself even in contests with far lower teams like Lesotho and Zimbabwe among others.

“The pedigree of Peseiro did not support a dream of his leading Nigeria to glory in AFCON. He had only previously handled two lowly-rated national teams – Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Peseiro’s other jobs were being assistant to other coaches and handling clubs in the fourth-tier Portuguese league,” he said.

The veteran journalist described Peseiro’s playing career as ordinary, saying, “as a player, he was a second-tier striker in Portugal. As he said in an interview on UK’s Sky Sport: ‘I did not play at a high level.’

“His coaching career took a turn after promotion to the topflight with Nacional. A job offer set him on a different trajectory. Legendary Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz made him his assistant at Real Madrid in 2003. That was Jose Peseiro’s biggest moment.”

Solaja said Peseiro’s association with the Real Madrid of Raul, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo, with Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo was the turning point in his coaching career, quoting the coach as saying,

“Until then, I was afraid. Never before had I shared a dressing room with big players. But it was not difficult because they were so smart. It was fantastic.” The experience lasted only one season.

Peseiro never won anything as a player and a coaching career that started in 1992 with União de Santarém in Portugal.

“An AFCON trophy on Sunday will be his first and biggest silverware,” he said, adding that Peseiro has worked hard and come a long way in a short while as Nigeria’s gaffer.

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